Game Week: Memphis Preview

SEP. 4 -- While UCLA's offense was abysmal last week, look for a turnaround this week, but a moderate one against a good Memphis defense...

FACTS AND FACTORS

UCLA opens its home season schedule this Saturday, Sept. 6th, at the Rose Bowl against the Memphis Tigers. The game kicks off at 7:00 p.m. PST and will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks.

• UCLA remained #7 in the AP Poll but fell to #11 in the USA Today Coaches Poll after a too-close victory over Virginia last week, 28-20.

• Memphis beat FCS Austin Peay, 63-0, in its season opener.

• This Saturday’s game marks the first time UCLA and Memphis have ever played each other in football.

• The Tigers were 3-9 and 1-7 in 2013, finishing in a tie for last place in the American Athletic Conference.

• Memphis has been one of the least-successful programs in the nation over the last decade or so, not having had a winning season since 2007, when it went 7-5. In the last 10 years it’s had just three winning seasons, and 4 seasons in which it only won two games.

• Last week’s win over Austin Peay marks the first time since 2004 Memphis won its season opener. Of course, Austin Peay is an FCS program (D 1-AA), but that wasn’t the first time it faced FCS programs during that 9-game losing streak for season openers. The nine-game losing streak for season openers was the longest in the FBS before it was snapped last week.

• For Memphis it will be only the third time in its history it’s played a football game in the state of California. And it actually is 2-0, having beaten San Jose State in 1971 and then-16th-ranked USC in 1991, 24-10.

• This Saturday won’t be the first time Memphis has played in the Rose Bowl. The game against San Jose State in 1971 was for the Pasadena Bowl, and it was played in the Rose Bowl.

• Memphis hasn’t beaten a ranked team since 1996, when it notched a victory over #6 Tennessee. It’s faced 12 ranked teams since and lost every match-up.

• The last time Memphis beat a ranked team on the road was in 1991, against USC.

• Memphis has only played two other top-ten teams since 2001 and lost to both. In fact, it’s only beaten two top-ten teams in its history, in 1975 and 1965.

• So, essentially, if Memphis beats UCLA on Saturday, it will be its biggest win in 39 years.

• Memphis is coached by third-year head man Justin Fuente who, at the age of 38, is one of the youngest coaches in FBS. A former quarterback at Murray State (and Oklahoma before he transferred), he started coaching in 2001 and has moved up the rank of assistants before getting his first head-coaching position at Memphis. His biggest coaching accomplishment so far was, as the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Texas Christian in 2009, he helped TCU achieve an undefeated season and win in the Rose Bowl. He was the coach responsible for the development of TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, and that resume was a big factor in Fuente getting the job at Memphis. So far with the Tigers overall he’s 8-17. Memphis fans were hopeful after his first season in 2012 when he when he posted four wins after the former coach, Larry Porter, had only achieved three wins the previous two seasons. In that first year, too, Fuente went 4-4 in the Conference USA East, which shed a little light of optimism on the Memphis program. But last season, the Tigers regressed a bit with the 3-9 overall record and 1-7 in conference, which tied them for last in the AAC. While Memphis only has 12 victories over the past five years, seven of those have come in the past two seasons under Fuente, so Memphis Nation remains optimistic. It is his third year, so the sentiment is that this is the year Fuente needs to show clear improvement. Fuente, being a former quarterback and quarterbacks coach, is an offense-minded coach.

• Memphis, though, despite having an offensive-minded coach, only scored more than 21 points three times in 2013.

• The American Athletic Conference might not sound familiar, because it’s a new conference that was formed in the first year of the College Football Playoff. It was formerly the Big East, which was part of the six power conferences in the Bowl Championship Series, but it is now one of the “Group of Five” mid-major conferences that is guaranteed a spot in one of the six premier bowl games in the College Football Playoff. There is still a Big East Conference, but it now is comprised of basketball-only schools. Once the American Athletic Conference was formed, Memphis joined after having been in Conference USA.

• Since so much was made of UCLA having to travel between three time zones to play Virginia last week, it should be noted that Memphis is in the Central Standard Time zone and will travel over two time zones for Saturday’s game.

• Memphis is a young team, with 25 players making their college football debut last week against Austin Peay, and six of those true freshmen.

• Former Memphis Head Coach Rip Scherer (1995-200) is in his second year ast UCLA as the Associate Athletic Director for Sports and Administration.

• UCLA opened as 24-point favorites over Memphis.

• The weather forecast for Saturday calls for a high of 94 degrees, but with the game at 7:00 p.m. the temperature will be comfortably in the 80s by game time, and the 70s by the second half.

MEMPHIS’ OFFENSE V. UCLA’S DEFENSE

You really can't take anything away from Memphis scoring 63 points against FCS Austin Peay last Saturday in their season opener.

Not only is Austin Peay an FCS program, they are a bad FCS program. They were winless in 2013, and have only won two games in the previous two seasons.

In 2013, Memphis was 110th in the nation in scoring, averaging 19.5 points per game, and 116th in total yards, averaging 311. Last week they gained 545 yards and 6.6 yards per play, which would be good against a decent FBS defense, but when you’re practically playing against an opponent without a defense those numbers should be more in the astronomical range.

The yardage was a bit modest, but it really has no bearing on whether Memphis’ offense is better this season, since Memphis primarily ran the ball in the blowout, gaining 303 yards on the ground, and the game was played in pouring rain. It wasn’t a case, though, that Memphis didn’t show their playbook to UCLA, because the game plan Offensive Coordinator Darrell Dickey utilized against APU early on was pretty diverse.

RB Brandon Hayes.
Memphis’ running game is mostly about sixth-year senior running back Brandon Hayes (5-9, 198), who is a solid ball-carrier. He doesn’t necessarily have blazing speed, but is a tough, durable, hard-nosed runner that is hard to get a bead on. He gained 860 yards last season, which was the most for a Memphis running back since 2008. Five Memphis running backs got 8 or more carries last week, so it looked like the Tiger coaching staff was trying to spread the wealth, keep bodies fresh and minimize the chance of injury. Sophomore Doroland Dorceus (5-10, 205) will get the bulk of the carries after Hayes, and he’s more of an inside-the-tackles guy that gets the call in short-yardage and on the goal line. He’s a bit slow-footed and not a threat to break a big one. Last week true freshman Jarvis Cooper (6-1, 250) made a big debut, running for 101 yards on 8 carries (averaging 12.6 yards per carry), being very tough for the APU defense to bring down. It has to be said, though, that he gained all of his yards late in the game when APU was beaten and tired. If there’s a guy who looks like he might have belonged in the SEC it could be Cooper, though. He’s such a big body, coming out of high school it was uncertain just what position he’d play in college – even considered a potential defensive lineman.

Sophomore Sam Craft (6-0, 210) is a guy they try to get many touches, lining up all over the field, at receiver, in the slot and at running back. He’s a glider, kind of similar in playing style to UCLA’s Jordan Fuller, but thicker.

The offensive line wasn’t a great one last season and they replaced three departing starters. The best of the bunch is probably senior right tackle Al Bond (6-4, 305), who has some decent quickness, and is tough and relentless. Perhaps the guy with the best upside is other returning starter, junior left tackle Taylor Fallin (6-6, 325), who is a decent athlete for his size but still mastering technique. The issue for Memphis’ OL will be its interior, with three new starters that have something to prove, JC transfer left guard Tyler Uselton (6-3, 310), redshirt freshman center Gabe Kuhn (6-4, 290) and a sophomore who redshirted last season, Michael Stannard (6-2, 280), at right guard. Pretty deep into fall camp, Memphis was shuffling some bodies around on its interior OL positions and it was relatively uncertain who would start at center (sound familiar?). The three looked good against Austin Peay but, again, it was Austin Peay.

Sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch (6-7, 230) looks like he’s improved some from his redshirt freshman season in 2013, which wasn’t a great one for him, when he completed 58% of his passes and threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9). Last week he completed 20 of 27 for 242 yards, two touchdowns and one pick – but it was against Austin Peay. He was a little inaccurate in the game, especially since he had a great deal of time to throw. He reportedly wasn’t very mobile last year but he showed some ability to run last week, not only scrambling but in plays designed for a quarterback to run, like read options and even conventional options. The issue with him last year was mostly footwork but the word is that he’s improved considerably in the off-season.

Memphis has just a decent group of receivers. The go-to guy is really the junior tight end, Alan Cross (6-1, 245) who is a bulky guy that has good hands and is adept at getting first-down yardage. Then, like we said above, they’ll try to get Craft many touches, with him mostly coming out of the slot and motioning quite a bit. Junior Mose Frazier (5-11, 185) is a little dangerous, with some explosion. Junior Tevin Jones (6-2, 218) is a bigger possession type and senior Keiwone Malone (5-11, 155) is billed as the shifty one, but neither of them look even Pac-12 level. Senior Joe Craig (5-11, 175) is the returning receiver with the most catches from last season (37), and he’s supposed to be the designated speedster, but Memphis failed to get him involved last week, mostly because they didn’t throw vertically much.

UCLA’s defense clearly had a good opening game last week against Virginia, scoring three second-quarter touchdowns on turnovers that won the game for the Bruins. There were a few mistakes here and there, and a little vulnerability in defending the deep ball, but the front seven were about as solid as a UCLA front seven has been in recent memory. Nose tackle Kenneth Clark was truly a force, amassing 8 tackles, which is unusual for a nose tackle. There were times that he was running to the sideline where you might have thought he was an overgrown linebacker. Defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, while he didn’t get to the Virginia quarterbacks, provided a great deal of pressure and garnered some double teams. UCLA’s linebackers were excellent, with Eric Kendricks being named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after getting a very conspicuous 16 tackles and a brilliant interception. If he hadn’t gotten the honor for the week it might have gone to his colleague, Myles Jack, who got a career-high 13 tackles.

Randall Goforth.
The one element of the Virginia game in which UCLA definitely looked top-ten worthy was the speed and athleticism of its defense, especially in its ability to pursue and close. There were times when a Virginia receiver looked like he had some running room ahead of him, but Kendricks, Jack and safety Randall Goforth would fly in and surround him.

Perhaps the worry this week defensively will be whether cornerback Fabian Moreau has lost some confidence. He was truly elite in fall camp, being a monster in coverage in rep after rep, but he got beat last Saturday on a touchdown so it will be interesting to see how resilient he is.

Dickey is trying to do what every offense is doing in college football, play with pace and tempo. The offense is similar to UCLA’s, too, in scheme, even though it does go over center and revert to an I in short-yardage situations. It utilizes a short, quick passing game, with short drops and digs, slants and all kinds of screens. Also, Dickey likes to move the launch point, rolling out Lynch, who appears almost more accurate throwing on the run. Memphis’ offense, in fact, looked the most effective with sprint-outs and Lynch finding receivers dragging through coverage. The running game, too, uses many variations and is good at disguising itself. All in all, it’s a good spread scheme and showed some imaginative play-calling last week – at least in the first quarter of the blow-out against APU.

Advantage: UCLA

The match-up that wins this is the talent and athleticism of UCLA’s front seven against Memphis’ offensive line and running backs. UCLA has a linebacker (Jack) who is a better running back than anyone Memphis has, and he’s certainly quicker and more athletic. UCLA’s front seven swarmed against Virginia and you can probably expect them to be even more of a quicker, strong swarm against Memphis. More than likely that will limit Memphis’s running game, which is probably about as good as Virginia’s.

UCLA, inside, has Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes who, for the most part, ate up Virginia’s interior OL last week. They’ll more than likely be feasting this Saturday on Memphis’ young and inexperienced interior OL.

For Memphis to score enough points to win this game Lynch is going to have to make some plays, mostly with his arm. Last week, against what has to be one of the worst defenses you might ever see, he looked just okay. It was clear, even against APU, Memphis wasn’t too confident that the Memphis pass protection could give Lynch enough time to look down the field, and you’d think they’ll scheme even more to get him out from under and around UCLA’s pressure. You can probably then expect UCLA to use its athleticism to keep Lynch from getting comfortable in his sprint-outs. We might feel Lynch would have a little bit better of a chance of being effective if there was even just one receiver who had elite talent, but there isn’t one.

Expect this match-up to look quite a bit like the UCLA Defense/Virginia Offense match-up last week, with UCLA having the added advantage of playing at home and Memphis the disadvantage of being on the road, which tends to always affect offenses more than defenses.

UCLA’S OFFENSE V. MEMPHIS’ DEFENSE

Memphis’ Defensive Coordinator Barry Odom has built a bit of a rep as a coach on the rise, mostly because of how good of a job he’s done at Memphis.

When you have a really poor offense, like Memphis did last season, it’s really an accomplishment to have a defense that was ranked #39 in the country for yardage allowed per game (370) and #12 in the nation in rushing defense (116 yards per game).

It’s really an accomplishment if you consider that three years ago Memphis was 117th in the nation in total defense.

DB Bobby McCain.
Odom returns most of his defense from 2013, so that’s a real positive for the 2014 season. The negative is that the front seven’s best player, senior defensive end Martin Ifedi, had his leg rolled up on last week and is out for the UCLA game and the next 4 to 6 weeks. Ifedi is an NFL caliber player and the main force of Memphis’ defense, so it wasn’t exactly wise to have Ifedi in the game in the second half against Austin Peay when you’re up 49-0.

The Tigers’ defensive scheme looks pretty similar to UCLA’s, mostly utilizing a 3-4. And, without Ifedi they still have some talent up front, even though it gets considerably thinner without him. Senior nose tackle Terry Redden (6-2, 281) is solid and experienced, and then the Tigers are very high on redshirt freshman defensive end Ernest Suttles (6-5, 250), who looked good last week against APU. Either junior Ricky Hunter (6-3, 275) or sophomore Latarius Brady (6-2, 275) will pick up the bulk of the reps in Ifedi’s absence. They played quite a bit last week anyway, and have a decent amount of playing experience, so it’s not like they’re green.

The Anthony-Barr-type stand-up defensive end spot is platooned a bit, with both sophomore Jackson Dillon (6-6, 230) and senior Kendrick Golden (6-4, 220) getting time.

One of the guys to really monitor on the defense is senior weakside linebacker Tank Jakes (5-11, 227). He’s a guy who might have played as a “Gutty Little Bruin” at UCLA ten years ago – undersized but a scrappy player, who is always around the ball. He didn’t start last season but was named the defensive MVP by his teammates. And he’s got a great name. The team’s leading tackler for the last two years is senior middle linebacker Charles Harris (6-2, 243), who could play for most programs. Senior Ryan Coleman (6-3, 220) is another returning starter at strongside ‘backer. Junior back-up Leonard Pegues (5-11, 240) lines up in various places and has good explosion off the line of scrimmage.

The secondary is all about all-world senior cornerback Bobby McCain (5-11, 195), who was the NCAA co-leader in interceptions per game, grabbing six of them for the season, returning two for touchdowns, including a 75-yarder. He definitely has a good instinct for the ball and most offenses will try to throw away from him. The other senior cornerback, Andrew Gaines (5-11, 177,) is also a returning starter and has started every game since transferring from a JC. Memphis had to replace its two starting safeties from last season and were a little worried about it, but last week against APU junior free safety Reggis Ball (5-11, 210) and senior strong safety Fritz Etienne (6-2, 210) had good showings – but then again, it was against Austin Peay.

UCLA’s offense definitely has something to prove this week after a pretty smelly performance against Virginia. Perhaps the most putrid was the offensive line’s performance, which looked a mess. True freshman right guard Najee Toran was lost most of the time so we’d expect him to sit out the Memphis game. We’d also expect veteran center Jake Brendel, who is recovering from an ACL and missed last week’s game, to probably start against Memphis, just to stabilize the line early on. Scott Quessenberry, who filled in at center in Brendel’s absence, could slide over to right guard.

Scott Quessenberry.
Quarterback Brett Hundley didn’t have a horrible game last week, but he made some mistakes. In UCLA’s offense, when a play is called, there are various outcomes, and Hundley made some poor decisions. He threw the ball okay, even though some of the drops were a little off-target. The second half of Virginia was better for Hundley, and for the UCLA offense, since it appeared Hundley settled down a bit and incorporated his running ability more into the offense.

The wide receivers were uncharacteristically droppy last week, which stopped down a number of UCLA drives. With a fairly talented and experience bunch we expect the dropsies to go away this week. It will be interesting to see if Mossi Johnson gets some touches since he didn’t see any action last week. In practice, Johnson has looked like he could have a big impact on UCLA’s offense, being one of the few guys who can make a tackler miss.

After last week’s performance by the running backs, we’d be surprised if Paul Perkins didn’t get the bulk of the carries over Jordon James. James has more of an ability to hit the homerun when he gets to the second level, but Perkins is much more productive at grinding out yards. With Steven Manfro out for the season with an ACL he suffered in practice Tuesday, we wouldn’t be surprised if UCLA had another option at running back on Saturday.

Advantage: UCLA

This would have been an even call if Ifedi hadn’t been injured last week. He was among the national leaders for sacks a year ago and eliminating him from the picture for Saturday will make it quite a bit more difficult for Memphis to pressure Hundley. We also would be stunned if UCLA’s offensive line weren’t better at picking up the stunts and delayed blitzes Virginia utilized. So, combine these two factors and we expect Hundley to have an improved amount of time in the pocket.

Austin Peay’s offense was really bad. They had practically no passing game to speak of but, a bit surprisingly, they had some moments in their run game. Now, without Ifedi, you’d have to expect Memphis to be a little more vulnerable to the run. Last week they looked susceptible to runs outside of the tackles and to a read option, a couple of things UCLA’s offense actually did well in the second half of Virginia.

Last week UCLA really was hurt by getting itself in many third-and-longs, through so many negative plays -- sacks, drops or penalties. And when Hundley is executing UCLA’s quick-tempo passing game well, it’s dependent on getting into third-and-shorts. We suspect that this week we’ll see less drops and probably less sacks/pressure on the quarterback, which will enable more third-and-shorts. When UCLA’s offense has third-and-shorts it’s generally been good.

Again, though, it’s tough to outright pick UCLA’s offense to have the advantage against Memphis’ defense after last week’s offensive performance. But Memphis’ stupidity of keeping Ifedi in the game when they were up by 7 touchdowns late against Austin Peay tips the match-up toward UCLA’s offense.

SPECIAL TEAMS

It’s a bit difficult to judge Memphis’ special teams based on last week against Austin Peay. The Tigers only punted twice, they didn’t attempt a field goal (since there was no need) and APU only kicked off once, to start the second half.

But we can piece it together with that limited information and some from last season.

We know that Memphis’ kicker, sophomore Jake Elliott, is a good one, making 16 of 18 attempts last season and a school-record 56-yarder. Last season the Tigers had a consensus All-American punter in Tom Hornsey, who graduated, but last week true freshman Spencer Smith, who is from Australia, did well in his two punts, one going 55 yards. You might expect UCLA to apply some pressure to the inexperienced Smith.

For punt returns, APU punted 11 times last week, and Memphis got 7 returns out of it and a good chunk of yardage out of each of them, for the most part. The punt returner, Keiwone Malone, didn’t look particularly dangerous, though. Joe Craig returns kicks and was fairly good last season, but he didn’t break one.

On coverage, it’s literally impossible to know about Memphis’ punt coverage, and almost impossible to analyze kick-off coverage since the four Memphis kick-offs that were returned last week were returned by Austin Peay.

UCLA’s coverage teams have been one of their strengths under Jim Mora, and looked very good last week at Virginia. On returns, after Ishmael Adams showed how dangerous he was on the called-back return, it appeared Virginia was kicking away from him on kick-offs. It might be smart since Adams is one of the most electric return guys we’ve ever seen at UCLA.

In UCLA’s kicking game the mystery going into last week was how new punter Matt Mengel would perform, and he did fine – and would have done better if he were able to pooch a kick within the 20 instead of booming it into the endzone. It was pretty obvious the UCLA coaches told him, for his first college game ever, not to worry about pooches. Kicker Kai’imi Fairbairn has looked better in fall camp, with more accuracy and distance, but he missed a 45-yarder last week. On kick-offs, four of five last week were touchbacks.

Advantage: UCLA

PREDICTION

The one consistent theme in this preview was how difficult it is to conclude anything from Memphis’ blow-out win over Austin Peay last week because it was, well, Austin Peay. APU was really bad, not only lacking talent but shooting themselves in the foot throughout the night with turnovers and penalties. Bellflower St. John Bosco would be favored against Austin Peay.

At least Memphis did what they should have done against APU, so there’s no reason to doubt the Tigers are probably about as good as you would project them to be coming off last season. Last season they were 3-9 and this season you’d probably anticipate they’d improve on that season record, to something like 5-7. A 5-7 American Athletic Conference team is a bottom third team in the Pac-12, and it’d be surprising if UCLA lost to a team of that caliber, for its home opener in the Rose Bowl, in a week that it wants desperately to erase the image of itself from last week.

From a match-up standpoint, too, everything points to UCLA. As we said, after UCLA’s offensive performance last week, we would possibly be inclined to say the match-up of UCLA’s offense against Memphis’ defense would be even, but losing Ifedi tips the scales a bit. Even with him, the Memphis DL is pretty undersized compared to UCLA's OL.

There are many other factors favoring UCLA. Both Memphis’ offense and defense are similar in scheme and tempo to UCLA’s, so the Bruins didn’t have to do a whole lot to prepare for the Tigers. You would think that last week’s dismal offensive performance would work as a wake-up call for the Bruins if there was any possibility that they’d sleep through a “trap” game of Memphis before Texas. They’re at home for the first time this season, and Memphis had to travel across the country. When you face a really poor team like Memphis did against Austin Peay, there is always, then, a bit of a shock initially when you go up against a real team, and sometimes there is a period of adjustment to the speed of the game. And if there’s definitely something UCLA has that’s elite it’s team speed and athleticism.

Memphis, though, while it lost 9 games last season, wasn’t a team that got blown out, mostly because it’s defense kept it in games, or relatively in games. We’d suspect that might also be the case on Saturday. After watching UCLA’s offense last week, particularly the offensive line, we’re skeptical that they can have a 180-degree turnaround a week later. Perhaps a 90-degree turn.

UCLA 34
Memphis 20


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